Winning a million Lira won't get you far in today's Turkey, but its worth celebrating anyway

Image by Arzu Geybullayeva

Rabia Birsen Güvercin, 24, went down in Turkey's history of the popular trivia game show, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” after winning 1 million Turkish Lira (USD 37,124) on September 11. The amount may have meant a lot in 2011 when the show first premiered on Turkish television, but in 2023, considering the increased cost of living, rising inflation, and the 20 percent tax deduction, the amount isn't likely to go too far.

Over the past few years, much attention has been on Turkey's economic decline, with food and energy costs continuously rising, and inflation reaching an estimated 65 percent by the year end. In short, Güvercin would have had a much higher purchasing power had she won the game twelve years ago.

Rabia Birsen Güvercin won “Who wants to be a millionaire.”

➤ At the time when the show aired for the first time in 2011, it was possible to purchase 6 flats in Istanbul.

➤ Today, one needs to win the game four times in order to afford buying a flat in Istanbul.

In the video shared by Diken newspaper, the outlet notes that in 2011, TRY 1 million totaled USD 590,000, whereas in 2023, the same amount totals to a bit over USD 37,000. In 2019 — the last time someone von the trivia game — TRY 1 million equaled about USD 175,000.

Another online news platform, Fayn Studio, compared the purchasing power of the award in cars. According to the platform, a winner of the competition could have purchased 3 Ferraris in 2011, but in 2023, that money can only buy a brand new Fiat Egea or a second-hand 2022 Suzuki Swift.

Shortly after the win, the show announced the decision to readjust the prize amount from TRY 1 million to TRY 5 million in the new season.

Turkey's financial decline

According to the most recent report published by the Turkish Statistical Insitute, nearly one-third of Turkey’s population is currently at risk of poverty or social exclusion. Speaking to Euronews, Hacer Foggo, a Poverty Solidarity Office Coordinator for the country's largest opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), said, “I have been working on poverty for 22 years, but I have never seen such a bad situation.”

Ahead of the general elections held in May, Turkey's economy was marred by soaring inflation, double-digit unemployment, a currency crisis, and a rising cost of living. Ahead of the elections and in an attempt to gather popular support, the ruling party “has rolled out record social aid spending, worth some 1.4 percent of the annual budget, including energy subsidies, doubling the minimum wage, and allowing more than 2 million Turks to retire immediately,” reported Reuters. But just as with President Recep TayyipErdoğan's unorthodox view of interest rates, such mass subsidies are temporary solutions that would only pressure state coffers. According to FT reporting at the time, Turkey's sky-high inflation “will eat into the pay rises by summer.”

This prediction turned out to be true. According to a July report by the Confederation of Turkish Labor Unions (Türk-İş), food expenses for a family of four have exceeded the minimum wage.

The country took a U-turn on interest rates in June following the general elections in a bid to address soaring inflation, with Erdoğan appointing a new cabinet and a central bank chief. Since then, the national currency “has shed 25 percent and, largely due to this depreciation, annual inflation jumped to near 59 percent last month,” reported Reuters.

Despite Fitch Ratings, an international credit ratings company, moving Turkey's rating from negative to stable, the economic outlook remains challenging, according to Timothy Ash, an emerging markets expert at BlueBay Asset Management.

Similarly, in an interview with Foreign Policy, independent economist Mustafa Sonmez said the shift in government logic has not eased people's worry. “Many household incomes are insufficient against inflation—impoverishment is now one of our biggest problems. We’re seeing an unusual inflation climb, and people are worried and disappointed,” Sonmez said.

Despite the grim analysis, Erdoğan is certain “brighter days await the country.” Speaking to journalists on his way from the G20 summit, the President vowed to return the country to “single-digit inflation,” “balanced policies and structural reforms,” and “ensure price stability.”

On September 6, President Erdoğan endorsed a medium-term economic program, which was widely seen and reported as “a break with the pre-election era, when a stream of rules were introduced to keep the economy on an even keel without raising interest rates,” according to reporting by the Financial Times. Bloomberg economists are skeptical. According to Bahar Baziki, “Turkey’s switch to orthodox policies, even with the best intentions, will take a long time to undo the damage from the previous actions.”

Meanwhile, Güvercin has her own plans and dreams to use with the money she won. She says she always dreamt of a farm where she could look after animals. Her other dream was to get an aesthetic arm prosthesis. Güvercin lost part of her arm last year in a meat grinder accident while helping her shopkeeper father. And looks like her second wish has been granted. A businessman whose business exports prosthetics to 60 countries saw Güvercin on television and, after hearing of her dream for a prosthetic arm, promised to cover all her expenses. As for her plans to get a farm, that remains to be seen.

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